What has happened to bring about the sad demise of the Western?


From Broken Trail, AMC, 2006

From The Threepenny Review:

The only recent Westerns that have managed to arouse my enthusiasm have been those made for TV: Walter Hill’s Broken Trail, and Deadwood, whose third and final season no one has even bothered to bring out on DVD in Spain, which gives you some idea of how unsuccessful the magnificent first two series must have been. In my view, Kevin Costner’s Open Range,

which came out slightly earlier, was the last decent Western to be made for the big screen, even though it has long been fashionable to denigrate anything this admirable actor and director does.

What has happened to bring about the sad demise of a genre that produced many masterpieces in the past, as well as other fine or worthy movies? Nowadays, the few who take up the genre do so either on a whim or out of affectation or in a pompous or archaeological spirit, and the movies they make lack naturalness, freshness, and that very necessary touch of ingenuousness. In other words, they don’t believe in the story they’re telling and showing us, they don’t dare to; the epic strikes them as old-fashioned, ridiculous, even embarrassing, and, absurdly enough, they seem uncomfortable with the potential complexity of their characters and their stories. I say “absurdly” because the Western has given us some of the most complex characters and stories in the history of cinema. John Ford is just as “deep” as Orson Welles—who greatly admired Ford—or Ingmar Bergman, and certainly as deep as those two overrated charlatans, von Trier and González Iñarritu.

Perhaps it’s because the Western, as a genre, has traditionally embodied attitudes and behavior—which it always took seriously, without ever falling into caricature—that now seem shocking to the hypocritical mass of entrenched goody-goodies, who desperately want to dissociate themselves from a whole range of passions that have been common to humanity throughout the ages. For example, in the Western nobody looks askance at hatred, ambition, the desire for revenge, the determined pursuit of an enemy, the wish to hurt or kill that enemy, the search for redress and sometimes justice for a wrong committed. Take the character played by James Stewart in the Anthony Mann movies Winchester 73

and The Man from Laramie

(purely as examples and because neither film is particularly violent or heartless): he is capable of giving up everything and dedicating himself body and soul to hunting down those who killed his father (in the first film) and his younger brother (in the latter). In the first movie, Lin McAdam’s sole occupation is the relentless pursuit—across half of the West—of an individual named Dutch Henry Brown, who shot his father in the back and who turns out, in the end, to be McAdam’s own brother. The second character, Will Lockhart, stays on in the remote, unfriendly town of Coronado precisely because he has been insulted, lassoed, and dragged through the dust, and because he suspects that someone from the town was responsible for selling the repeating rifles with which the Apaches ambushed and killed his younger brother, a soldier in the cavalry. That is all that matters to McAdam and Lockhart; what remains of their life—if there is anything—is put on hold by the one goal they care about. Characters in Westerns never have a future, indeed, they fear that, once their mission has been accomplished, they will be confronted by that uncomfortable notion, the future—a notion without which most people nowadays cannot live and to which we are all indebted and enslaved. Perhaps that is why Westerns tend to avoid or conceal that phase, ending when the protagonist has done what he feels he had to do, thus sparing us that horrible moment when he raises his head, looks around him and, as if emerging from a dream, asks himself: “Now what? I didn’t die in the attempt, so what shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“The Hero’s Dreadful Fate”, Javier Marías, The Threepenny Review